Monday, September 14, 2009

My response to Robert Eisenman and "Redemonizing Judas"

Robert Eisenman has updated and republished his Huffington Post piece on "Redemonizing Judas." I mention this not because I think it is a good article (things are quite mixed up in his article), but because again I am characterized by Eisenman as a "conservative" scholar who thinks the NT gospels are more historical than the extra-canonical gospels, all because I argue that the demon Judas is in the Gospel of Judas rather than the hero. The fact that I argue for a demonic Judas is the only point that Eisenman appears to know about my work. From this fact he appears to have drawn the incorrect conclusion that I am a "conservative" scholar who is a "theologian" interested in pushing a conservative Christian platform in my writing for which I am criticized. Indeed, such a characterization of me or my work could not be more off the mark.

In my opinion, it is sad that Eisenman would publish such a mixed up article on a widely read blog like Huffington Post, leaving his readers with the wrong impressions about the scholars he mentions. He calls Michael Williams and Jim Robinson "conservative" theologians too, so at least I am in good company.

It is humorous that I receive criticism for my work on the Gospel of Thomas from those interested in maintaining canonical authority and historicity, while also getting slammed for my work on the Gospel of Judas by those on the other side of the fence who want to trump the canonical stories with (in my view) misunderstood extra-canonical literature.

The fact is I am a historian with no interest in apologizing for Christianity or maintaining Christian tradition. When I read texts, I do so as an historian and I say it like I see it with no concern about whether or not it "fits" with the traditional Christian picture of things.

My studies of the Gospel of Thomas have led me to conclude it contains a very old kernel gospel that pre-dates Paul and likely Quelle in the forms we have it in Matthew and Luke. The mystical tradition and encratic perspective it upholds was developed in response to the delayed eschaton and became the basis for much of Christianity in eastern Syria. So the gospel is both young and old. Because of this, we must use caution when addressing the text in our work. But it contains an essential "missing" piece to the puzzle of early pre-Pauline Jerusalem Christianity.

My studies of the Gospel of Judas have led me to conclude that the Sethian Christians who wrote it were very careful exegetes of the canonical gospels. They took seriously the claims in Luke and John that Judas was a demon, even the demon Satan who ruled the world. As such, they identified Judas with the Ialdabaoth demiurge (the demonic ruler of this world), and understood Judas' astral destiny to be identical with Ialdabaoth's, the god of the thirteen realms. If anything, this conclusion turns upside down the expected narrative based on past scholarly readings of Irenaeus and Epiphanius. It is hardly a "conservative" argument, nor is does it represent an attempt on my part to forward a "conservative" traditional Christian agenda.


Geoff Hudson said...


Do you accept Eisenman's view that that the name 'Judas'

"was meant to parody and heap abuse on two favourite characters of the Jews of the age: Judas Maccabee, the hero of Hanukkah festivities today, and Judas the Galilean, the founder of what one might call either the 'zealot' or the Galilean movement."

Personally, I believe that Judas the Galilean was also a Flavian parody of Judas Maccabee.

Pastor Bob said...

His article suggests he hasn't read your book on Judas.

N T Wrong said...

Hot damn, that's funny. If Eisenmann thinks you're a 'conservative,' he must have CW Skinner pegged as a self-flagellating hair-shirt-wearing Puritan.

But wait - that would require a modicum of logic on RE's part.

Geoff Hudson said...

N T Wrong - Eisenman has more brains in his little finger than you'll ever have!

Geoff Hudson said...

More from the Eisenman in the Huffington Post:

"Having grasped this, one must move beyond all this artfulness ('the poetry' as it were) and confront the issue of whether there ever was a 'Judas Iscariot' per se except in the imaginatation of these Gospel artificers."

As Eisenman says, "the 'Judas' puzzle points the way towards a solution to this one as well" - he was referring to the historicity of 'Jesus'.

Geoff Hudson said...

Eisenman actually uses the expression 'more conservative' which could mean 'to the left' or liberal.

And what do you think of Eisenman's question asked at the SBL meeting in San Diego? It was his question which having grasped the answer, one could "confront the issue of whether there ever was a Judas Iscariot":

"What makes you think any (presumably all Gospels) are historical and not just retrospective and polemical endeavours of a kind familiar to the Hellennistic/Greco-Roman at that time?"

And then he says:
"-all are works of literature. None are really historical works in the true sense of the word, which the appearance of Gospels such as this (the Gospel of Judas) and an earlier one, the Gospel of Thomas, drive home with a vengeance."

I can accept Eisenman's views about 'Judas', 'Jesus' and the four Gospels, and the other Gospels, except for perhaps some of the Gospel of Mark. Where I would differ is with Acts and the pauline literature. Although heavily edited, they were undoubtedly developed from prophetic writings.

April DeConick said...

NT Wrong,

So glad you are back!

Geoff Hudson said...

He's never gone away.

Geoff Hudson said...

Eisenman is honest.

"This is a perfect example of the dictum I have tried to illuminate in all my books, 'Poetry is truer than history', that it doesn't matter what really happened, only what people think or the literary works upon which they depend say happened".

He was referring to
Ms Aocella's ahistorical approach in taking the Gospels as literally true.

Pastor Bob said...

It seems to me that there are two entirely different questions here.

The first is have Christians used the figure and actions of Judas in the "orthodox" gospels throughout the centuries as a means to denigrate and persecute Jews? The answer unfortunately is yes.

The second is how to translate the relevant sections of the Gospel of Judas in which Jesus speaks to Judas. Dr. DeConick has stated in her book that the NG society translators got it wrong.

Further, and I think more important from the perspective of scholarly methodology, the NG society's non disclosure agreements with their scholars prevented proper scholarly methodology. As Dr. Eisenman points out he worked to bring the Dead Sea Scrolls into the light so that all scholars could study them and compare their work. The same should have been done with the Gospel of Judas.

So the real questions are: what does the Gospel of Judas say about Judas and how does what the Gospel of Judas compare with other gospels. All other gospels, not just the ones that made it into the New Testament.

Notice at no point in any of this did I ask what really happened or if Judas as described in any gospel was a historical person who did the things described in one or more of the gospels. The question at this point is what does the text say.

Geoff Hudson said...

Bob, there is only one issue for Eisenman. It is this. The academic community have remained silent on the issue of Judas being a mythical character. It has talked about the texts as though he was real, either in pretense because it doesn't want to offend, or because it believes he was real. I don't expect you could say that he was mythical.

Geoff Hudson said...

Would you say that the writer of the Gospel of Judas hated Judas?

'They (the high priests) approached Judas and said to him, "What are you doing here? You are Jesus' disciple." Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.'

It was almost as if Judas was obliged to 'answer as they wished', and he was obliged to 'receive some money' (probably to account for the guilt of the priests), before he 'handed him over to them'. This was a much improved Judas compared to the NT version. Somehow, I think the Sethians quite liked their Judas. This was no hatemongers gospel - even if all based on myth.

Gerry said...


Personally, I don’t know who wrote the Gospel of Judas, nor do I know if Judas ever existed. Same goes for Jesus, Peter, Paul & Mary and all the rest. Wasn’t there; don’t care. In fact, I think I can honestly say that there is likely not one thing in my life that hinges on the need to prove one way or another whether any of those individuals might have actually drawn breath once upon a time. To offer a sideways answer to your question though, I reckon that whoever was responsible for this particular redaction was probably grateful for such a character as Judas.

When news of the impending publication of the Gospel of Judas first broke, I wasn’t content to wait nearly a year for the scheduled release date. Unfortunately, my eagerness didn’t pay off as my knowledge of Coptic was too slight, compounded by the fact that the few pages of facsimiles and transcriptions by Charlie Hedrick that had leaked onto the Net ended up being mismatched pages from elsewhere in Codex Tchacos. I had to wait, like virtually everyone else. When the day finally came that I was able to look upon the translation presented by National Geographic, I felt fortunate to read something so radically different from the traditional accounts—something that hadn't been seen for hundreds of years. I enjoyed it so much that I was quite taken aback when Dr. DeConick soon questioned that original translation. Despite her bold assertions though, she was tightlipped enough to keep me waiting once more—this time, for the release of her book.

I have to say, I truly did not believe it would be possible that just a few key phrases, when interpreted differently, might put a completely new spin on this work. Now, however, I’m a believer. Anyone at all interested in gaining insight into the original context of this gospel (and I would like to think that would apply to every soul who bothers to pick up any translation) would do well to consider the case April makes, along with other notable scholars in the field. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that there haven’t been perhaps a couple of points along the course of her argument that haven’t given me pause, but I do find her conclusions more convincing overall than what the initial NatGeo team provided us.

I’m really glad that Dr. DeConick’s views challenged me enough to look further into this text. While I have viewed it now from two seemingly opposite perspectives and rationalized in my own mind how each could have conformed to the original author’s apparently Gnostic persuasion, I almost find myself left wondering what all the fuss over Judas is about? After all, whether he is portrayed as a singular hero or a demonic villain, one thing remains consistent in either telling: Jesus is separating him from the others in order to emphasize their perceptual shortcomings. Do you suppose the Sethians were trying to tell us something?


Geoff Hudson said...

Gerry, does the gospel portray hatred for Judas? I think not. According to Eisenman, this was a Gospel out to 'ameliorate' the position of Judas, now a mild villain. There are no complaints about Jesus anointing Mary's feet with expensive ointment, no 30 pieces of silver, no lurid suicide by casting himself down so that his bowels fell out, and no reference to hanging himself.

pepitone said...

I don't care about the pissing match here, but I do wonder: if so many scholars who believe that the gospel accounts of Judas are either made up of whole cloth or greatly distorted, then what does it say about the interpretation of the gospel of Judas?

Did the authors of the book believe Judas was a real person and a real villain? On what level were they vilifying him?

April, obviously you are not a conservative nor a Christian scholar, but your critique was leapt upon by conservatives round the world to justify their defense of orthodox doctrine.

Matthew Alexander White said...

Although it might be annoying to be called scapegoated conservative/liberal by various people who dissagree/misunderstand. There is a silver lining to being so misunderstood by both sides of a discipline rife with partisanship/party-line groupthink. It could mean that a new era of scholarship is just beginning. Usually before a paradigm shift actually occurs, the first few voices of the paradigm shift are universally opposed by both sides of the current, doomed paradigm because the new voice attacks the unvoiced presuppostions/agendas of both.

In this case I see these as some apologetic scholars need to maintain orthodoxy on one side and many 'liberal' scholars on need to ease their Post-Ha'Shoah, Western-Christian guilt by, as you qouted one, "needing a good judas." Sadly, if scholarship has shown anything it is that scholars from either camp will chuck the truth under the bus for a "good cause" (whatever their enlightened, annoited, noble agenda may be).
The good news is if 'divisively complex' interpretations of current issues like these keep making a splash, then a paradigm shift is in the works.

sparkwidget said...

I have found it to be nearly impossible to have any sort of exchange about religion history on the internet without the accusation of some ulterior theological bias, whether conservative or liberal. I have been told I am a "conservative" for a statement I made about my skepticism that Gnosticism evolved primarily from Pagan religions. I have been called "orthodox" for saying they were generally ascetic. Finally, I was labeled anti-semitic for my statement that Gospel of Judas treats Judas negatively.

Robert Wahler said...


You are right about Eisenman. I met him. He is very bright. His work is the most amazing I have ever read. "Who and whatever James was, so was Jesus". He knows Judas Iscariot was fiction, and Paul was the "Liar". Stay tuned, is what I want to tell you. The Gospel of Judas and the Qumran scrolls will tell a very different story than the Jesus we know from the Church. It has been a 2,000 habit to try to quash the truth about what he really taught. what he taught is here today: --complete with a living breathing savior -- Baba Gurinder Singh Dhillon (photo on website)

Robert Wahler said...

Not only is Judas the sacrifice in the Gospel of Judas, not Jesus, there is no Jesus, there is no Judas. I have determined that Judas is really James, both here and in the canonical gospels, ALL of them, and no traitor in Gospel of Thomas. Jesus is nonexistent, best I can tell, and is perhaps John the B. Read my book on it, or email me for the new chapter: sahansdal at yahoo dot com.